NPR

In Sri Lanka, China's Building Spree Is Raising Questions About Sovereignty

A Chinese state-owned operator took control of a port on a 99-year lease after Sri Lanka defaulted on its loans. An adviser to Sri Lanka's president said the government wants China to "give it back."
China has built a massive international shipping port a few miles from the old fishing port of Hambantota, Sri Lanka. Source: Lauren Frayer

At Sri Lanka's southern tip, an abandoned British lighthouse stands sentinel near a half-moon-shaped cove bobbing with turquoise dinghies. Fishermen wearing sarongs drag wooden outriggers across a beach backed by centuries-old salt flats and palm trees.

Less than 2 miles down the coast, towering blue-and-white cranes dwarf the lighthouse, as does a contemporary glass and stucco office building — the Chinese headquarters of a sprawling new port complex.

A sleepy fishing hub since ancient times, the Sri Lankan town of Hambantota is located just a few nautical miles from where tens of thousands of container ships now pass annually, plying the Indian Ocean between Asia and the Middle East. It's one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world — one that Beijing is eager to control.

So when the Sri Lankan government decided in 2002 to build a new port in Hambantota, China offered $1.1 billion in loans. It also supplied Chinese contractors. And when the port opened in late

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